For serious kids

The Salt Exchange experiments with food
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 5, 2009

salt main
Photo: Rebecca Goldfine 
GARNISHED WITH THE SPINE Expertly seared cod.

In last week's New York Times, David Brooks suggested that for people who are not parents there are "no grand designs..., no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning." It is an idea echoed by our president, who has suggested that before he was a parent "life was all about me," but as a father has come to care about what is best for the community. If children are what make our lives meaningful and ethical, we really owe them a nice dinner out. It is about time formal restaurants begin catering to them. The Salt Exchange does so quite effectively. The portions are small, the textures are often mushy, and the flavors are mostly mild enough to please a child's palate.

THE SALT EXCHANGE | 245 Commercial St, Portland | Lunch Mon-Sat 11 am-2:30 pm; Dinner Mon-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10 pm | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.347.5687

Whether this is what the Salt Exchange intended, I do not know. The décor is certainly adult enough. It's quite elegant, actually, with a gently curving bar, accents of green on the ceiling and back wall, and red brick all around. The framed photos of raw meat and dead fish might have a gross-out appeal for youngsters. The service is formal — in fact so expertly correct (down to the napkin folded around the wine) that it might serve as useful instruction for those still learning the tropes of politesse.

Many dishes arrive looking playful, bright, and candy-colored. Scallop tartare hid under a red cap of raw tuna like the animals tucked under a mushroom in Mirra Ginsburg's children's book. It all quivered on top of a circle of gelatin made from tomato, but barely tasting of it. Under that was smeared a carrot purée reminiscent of baby food. When some squares of seared tuna arrived floating on something creamy and bright green, we expected a wasabi kick. But instead it was a mild sort of arugula pudding. A bit of shrimp on polenta was straightforward enough. A soft pile of salty cod and sweet olive oil on toast was the best of the seafood starters. Little barbajuans, crisp and fried like a child's snack, were filled with a blend of lamb, chard, and Parmesan and tasted like a bite of a good burger.

Any good children's entertainment will throw in something for the adults, the way Pixar does in their movies. The entrée-ish "hot plates" did just that. So even though the risotto looked just like Nickelodeon's green slime, it also had a perfect texture (neither chewy nor mushy) and a deep flavor of fresh peas. There were enough earthy dark mushrooms to get some into every bite. The buttery poached clams sitting on top were terrific. We also liked the mussels that were tucked under little radish blankets alongside an expertly seared piece of cod. It was a good piece of fish but a little bland in this preparation — though it looked striking with its spine sticking out of the flesh like a scene from Mortal Kombat.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , David Brooks, dining, The New York Times,  More more >
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